Sample Chapter

The Reckoning

Unbounded #5


WE HUNKERED DOWN IN THE bushes and waited until the patrolling guards passed. My nerves tingled in anticipation, my Unbounded genes kicking in. We’d slipped over the massive stone fence surrounding the estate but were still far from our goal and the evidence we’d come to steal. Intel on a recovered thumb drive had led us here, but we didn’t know for sure that our information was correct. Not one communication circuit in the world had made even a roundabout mention of it, which meant those responsible were being careful not to use any regular channels.

The large house didn’t appear different from its neighbors, at least not visually. Aerial photographs taken of West Lake Hills, a suburb of Austin, Texas, showed only a sprawling mansion with manicured lawns, stables, a tennis court, an elaborate swimming pool, two connecting guesthouses, and a parking lot rivaling those found outside many shopping malls. It was rumored to have a second pool inside the house itself, along with a race track and two racquetball courts.

None of this was unusual for Mr. Desoto, a billionaire whose various companies held several important US defense contracts. Even the security of patrolling guards wasn’t that far out of the ordinary. But the fact that I couldn’t sense inside the house meant they had Emporium technology and were aware that someone like me existed.

“Ready?” Ritter Langton asked. Even in the dark and with my mind shield closed, his presence was tangible to me. Tangible and compelling. I had the ability to see all life forces, even if their thoughts were blocked, but I perceived his differently. Probably because I considered him mine.

I nodded, reaching for the hood I carried in my pocket to cover my pale skin and blond hair. Next to me, the dark-haired Mari Jorgenson did the same. The hood was made of metamaterials like the bodysuits we wore, or in other words, particles smaller than the wavelength of light. Cort had been working on them for the past century, and finally technology was catching up to his theories. Though these new prototypes didn’t make the wearer truly invisible, they helped hide us in the dark.

Ritter glided to the edge of the bushes, his sharp eyes penetrating the darkness, searching for signs of danger. He wouldn’t be going inside the house because Mari and I planned to shift out once the shield was down, and we couldn’t take him along with us, but he’d be close in case something unexpected happened. Hopefully close enough for me to use his combat ability if we ran into problems. I was good, but next to his ability, I looked like a beginner.

“Check your suit’s heat nullifiers.” Stella Davis, the fourth member of our party, glanced up from a small tablet she held in her hand. “I can’t guarantee they’ll have infrared, but if this information is as important as I think it is, they’ll have something in place to check heat sources for anything larger than a cat.” She took out a device twice as thick as my cell phone. “Here it is.”

I was supposed to plug the decoder into any computer attached to their network, and it would give Stella access to their computers so she could disable the house’s shields.

“Be careful,” Stella added. For all her two centuries of experience with ops, her slanted eyes radiated nervousness. That was because Mari was one of Stella’s two descendants to survive our ongoing conflict with the Emporium, and Stella really didn’t like her going inside the house. Being nearly immortal didn’t mean as much as it might when your worst enemies were every bit as immortal and knew exactly how to permanently end your existence.

Stella put on a blinking headset that looked somewhat like a thin crown with tiny pieces of metal that worked their way past her sleek, dark hair to make contact with her scalp, providing a neural link to her computer. As a technopath, she could use the device to compare and manipulate data at a rate several dozen times that of an average human. Even with the odd-looking headset, Stella was arrestingly beautiful, owing in part to her half-Japanese heritage, but mostly because of the nanites she controlled inside her body, enhancing her features faster than her Unbounded genes could put them back to normal.

“I’ll let you know when it’s in place,” I said. I didn’t tell Stella I’d take care of Mari; she already knew. We Renegades, self-appointed guardians to a mortal human world, who for the most part were unaware of our existence, took care of our own. We were closer than family.

“What if the shield isn’t connected to their computer?” Mari asked, almost startling me with her closeness, though I could clearly sense her life force in my mind. The metamaterial suit did seem to help her with stealth. Not that she, a shifter, needed improvement in that area.

“The shield is generated by electricity.” Stella pulled a knit hat over her headset to obscure the tiny blinking lights. “If the controls aren’t linked to their network, I’ll simply find their outside circuits and blow them up.” She gave Mari a bland grin. “Don’t worry. If you run into trouble, I’ll sic Ritter on them. We’ll make sure you can shift out.”

Mari couldn’t teleport past the invisible barrier any more than I could sense past it. But that was only an annoyance, not an insurmountable obstacle.

“Just don’t blow up the house until we’re out.” This I said mostly for Ritter, who as a combat Unbounded sometimes got a bit too much into his work.

He looked my way, his eyes black and glittering in the dark, sending a delicious wave of heat through me. I put in my earbud, checked the attached mic, and pulled on my hood. “Ready.”

Ritter led the way. Had he wanted, he could have left us far behind. Even without the new suit, he could move fast enough that he was difficult to see. If he dropped his mental barrier, I could channel his ability, but it wasn’t necessary now, and doing so might alert a sensing Unbounded working for the Emporium, if any were near. It was always a possibility.

Two weeks ago, after my last encounter with an Emporium sensing Unbounded, I’d ended up with a shiny, black, snake-like thread in my head. I’d tried pushing it out, blasting it, and otherwise decimating it with my mental ability—all without result. It was still there, contained now, but I hadn’t discovered its purpose. Doing so was on my short list of priorities.

Even through her mind shield, Mari’s exuberance glimmered from her. So different from the accountant she’d been before her Change had made her one of us. I extended my own mental shield to cover her. She wouldn’t even realize I was doing it, but it made me feel better. At the first hint of danger, she could shift back to the airfield where my brother, Chris, waited with our plane, so she was actually safer than the rest of us—well, provided we turned off their electric shields so she could use her ability. But because of her rare talent, the Emporium would pay a high price to get their hands on her and her ovaries, so I felt protective of her.

Ritter guided us unfailingly through the bushes, keeping to the shadows when we neared the house. The two-man patrol we’d dodged earlier came around again, triggering motion lights on the house. I could tell from looking at them that they were human, not Unbounded—a useful aspect of my gift—but their minds were blocked, if poorly. With only a little pushing, I saw from their thoughts that while they were familiar with the Emporium, they knew nothing about the file we sought. Not that it really mattered because we were almost certain where it was being kept. A part of me was relieved they were mortal, but another part was angry at the Emporium’s penchant for using mortals. If something went wrong, mortal agents too often meant more deaths.

Deaths I wasn’t willing to be responsible for.

We sat still beneath some trees as the patrol passed, but they didn’t even look our way. The January night was a bit colder than it had been in San Diego, home to our new headquarters, but mild enough for our purpose, and the suits kept us comfortable. When the patrol was gone, Ritter gestured for us to wait while he took care of the motion lights. He sprinted forward across the grass toward the house. A light on the roof came belatedly to life, but he was already out of sight. If anyone was observing, they might assume some animal had tripped it. A few seconds later, the light winked out of existence.

Ritter signaled with a whistle, and Mari and I started forward. Even this close, I couldn’t penetrate the shield around the house, so they had to be using a lot of electricity to maintain it. No doubt in response to what had happened in New York, when we’d gotten past their shields at a prison compound.

I removed the launcher from my back and shot a grappling hook onto the roof above a second-floor window of the spare room we were targeting. Pulling the grappling rope toward me until it caught one of the numerous chimneys, I activated the retraction feature and began walking up the side of the house as it towed me upward, my stomach clenching with revulsion.

Climbing wasn’t the problem. It was only what happened once I got high enough for my acrophobia to kick in. I’d conquered it for the most part, but being someplace high always required effort. I was ever aware of the fear, knowing it would burst free and paralyze me if I allowed it any space in my mind.

“Five minutes,” Ritter said in my earbud.

Five minutes during which Mari and I had to climb to the window and wait there until the patrol changed and the alarm was turned off so the guards could sign in and out for their shifts. That was when we’d force the window open with the crowbar I’d brought along for the job.

I reached the window ledge and balanced between it and my hold on the launcher. Mari was still rising with her own launcher and rope, painfully slow. Finally she shifted, disappearing from below and appearing next to me on the window ledge, grabbing her rope again just in time to stop herself from falling. Somehow she managed to prevent her abandoned launcher from banging into the side of the house as it dangled at the end of the rope.

“No way is this coming out of the eaves,” she whispered, staring up at where her grappling hook had penetrated the siding instead of making it on top of the roof. “I didn’t aim so well. I’ll have to leave it behind.”

“I’ll take care of it once you’re inside.” Ritter’s voice came to our ears. “In fact, I’ll take care of Erin’s, too, since I’ll be up there.”

I didn’t doubt that he would. His ability gave him strength, speed, and agility I only guessed at even after experiencing it firsthand. Two hundred and seventy-three years of practice helped, I supposed. All of which was a good thing tonight. We hoped to be in and out with no one the wiser. It was good to steal information from our enemies at any time, but far better to do it without them knowing we were onto them. Especially when we were dealing with the Emporium and the people on their payroll.

“Car approaching,” Stella said in our earbuds. “Get ready.”

My free hand closed around the crowbar, sliding it from my belt. If the house hadn’t been so protected, Stella would have used her technology to learn the house alarm codes, but whatever prevented me from probing the house also prevented any kind of signals from coming out. Our spybots were useless. If this house was attached to the Internet and the outside world, it was by cables buried deep in the earth.

“They’re opening the door,” Stella said. After several seconds, she added, “There, that should be enough time for them to have put in the code.”

“You’re clear to enter,” Ritter added. “No one in sight on this side of the house.”

My senses verified Ritter’s observation, so unless there was a sensing Emporium Unbounded nearby who could mask his life force, we were good to go.

I jabbed in the crowbar, but the window didn’t budge.

“Uh, any time soon, Erin,” Ritter muttered.

“Why don’t you come up here and do it yourself, Your Deathliness?” I put emphasis on the nickname I normally used only when he was irritating me.

“Maybe I will.” His voice held a mixture of threat and promise.

I reached out, tapping on his shield. Let me in. He couldn’t keep me out, not anymore, though he would be able to soon. All our Renegades were practicing shielding after I’d proven false the long-held belief that mind shields always worked. I’d learned that some sensing Unbounded—at least me and Delia Vesey, one of the Emporium Triad leaders—could break through normal mental shields. The discovery had come about partly because of desperation, but mostly because I was new and didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to be able to do it. Ava O’Hare, who was the leader of our group of Renegade Unbounded and also my ancestor, couldn’t break through shields before I showed her how. Now she could break through the shields of our newest Renegades, who were mentally the weakest.

Ritter dropped his shield, and I channeled his ability, seeing immediately how to solve the problem. Mostly it was just brute force. The window slid open.

You owe me, Ritter thought.

He had no way of knowing if I’d picked up his thought, so I chose to ignore it. His Deathliness was arrogant enough without me egging him on. The fact that he was that good didn’t help matters.

As I swung into the room, the shield over the house cut me off from Ritter, and I felt a yank of loss that was all out of proportion to a simple disconnect with any other person. I shouldn’t feel that way, despite our relationship, but I did.

“They are so going to know we were here if they open this window,” Mari said, sliding her hand along the frame before she closed it.

“The room’s unused,” I said. “It could be months.”

“It’s so dark.” Mari flipped out a penlight and swung it around the room before snapping it off. Long enough to verify that no one lurked in the corners.

Too bad I hadn’t been able to maintain contact with Ritter, whose ability gave his eyesight a boost in the dark. We were also cut off from communication until we disarmed the shield.

“Come on.” I led the way to the door.

We’d both memorized the plans to the house and knew where the security room should be. Careful research on Stella’s part had revealed that Mr. Desoto had installed a state-of-the-art surveillance system, complete with cameras and a dozen monitors. What we didn’t know was if someone actually watched the monitors constantly. It was, after all, Mr. Desoto’s residence, not one of his many businesses, though apparently our intel was correct about him storing important information here—the patrols were proof of that. Since it was his home, however, and patrols made regular circuits around the house, we were hopeful that instead of constantly monitoring their camera feed, the patrolmen would check the security room only if their computer programs alerted them to something suspicious.

We moved silently into the hallway and down a flight of stairs. The room we’d entered was far from the master suite, where I assumed Mr. Desoto was enjoying his evening, and that also meant we had a good way to go before we neared the security room where I had to plug in Stella’s decoder.

After gliding through a long hallway and a sitting room, we started down the front stairs that were illuminated by a slice of moonlight shining through the huge window over the entryway. The crystals on an elaborate chandelier above the entryway glittered as they eerily reflected the moonlight. Next to me, there was a brief change in the air and a soft pop. I knew without looking that Mari had shifted. She reappeared down below and crouched behind a wall table, giving me the all-clear signal. I finished descending the stairs the usual way, and as my foot touched the bottom stair, a series of beeps came to us faintly. I froze for a few heartbeats until I realized it was the alarm being reactivated by the new patrol guards. Hopefully, that meant the security room was unmanned.

We continued farther into the house, nearing the kitchen. When noise of a lid settling on a pot came rather too loudly, I put my hand on Mari’s arm and pressed us up against the wall of the hallway, sending out my thoughts to see who it was. I couldn’t sense past the house’s invisible barrier, but now that we were inside, everything in the house was available to me. The noise had come from the live-in cook, who was getting a jump on tomorrow’s meal preparations. No mental shield protected her thoughts. She was watching a television embedded in the wall, wearing headphones so the sound would have no chance of disturbing Mr. Desoto, though his suite was far enough away that it wouldn’t be a problem. I saw in her mind that she planned meals only for one person the next day because Mrs. Desoto and her two teenagers were visiting her sister in Chicago for the weekend. There was, of course, no information about the security room or where Mr. Desoto might keep his top secret files.

When inside people’s minds, I mostly remain an observer, careful not to touch their thought streams that appeared to me as rivers of sand cascading from some imaginary ceiling and then curving sideways and away out of sight before reaching the floor. All the scenes of their current thoughts or any memories they were pondering would fling by at tremendous speeds, showing me details about their lives. If I touched the thought stream at all, people who knew of Unbounded would immediately suspect someone was inside their minds, while regular mortals might suspect they were going insane. Permanent damage was possible inside anyone’s mind, which was why I preferred to examine an unconscious person, since it was far easier to obtain information while the brain was sleeping.

But there were ways around my no-touch policy. I formed a thought of my own and set it adrift near the top of the cook’s thought stream. It floated for several seconds, drifting closer to the stream, until all at once it was sucked inside.

Almost immediately, she began thinking about the security room and the nice young man who was on the night shift. I gently released another thought. A suggestion really. She should take him a tasty snack. Again, her mind took over. Yes, some of those cookies she’d baked today and a hot cup of gourmet coffee with cream and two sugars the way he liked. The good kind of coffee and not the cheap stuff the patrol made themselves from a coffee pot inside the security room. The boy reminded her of her own son before he’d married and moved to Florida.

Keeping the link with the cook open, I refocused on Mari and the dark corridor where we hugged the wall. “Bad news,” I whispered. “There’s a guy in the security room, but the cook’s planning to take him some coffee. Her thoughts say he’s young enough that even if he’s Emporium, he can’t have Changed.”

“If she’s taking him coffee, we can use the magic powder instead of gassing him to sleep,” Mari said with a grin.

The magic powder would put an average-sized man asleep within two minutes but was gentle enough that he’d think he’d just fallen asleep. It wouldn’t be enough to keep him unconscious for more than a half hour, but that was plenty of time for us to play havoc with his security system, grab the information we sought, and get out. There was also a little something extra in the powder that would make the man traceable for up to a week within a certain range. It wasn’t anything we’d probably need in this situation, but we never passed up an opportunity to learn more about our enemies. If he was an Emporium operative, that little addition might lead to his capture when all this was over.

I waited until the cook had the coffee brewing and had walked around to the far side of the large counter, her eyes fixed on her movie. Then I did a double check for life forms. Sensing no one in the immediate vicinity, I whispered to Mari to drop her shield. Mari couldn’t shift to a place she’d never been or couldn’t see—unless someone she was strongly connected to was in that location—but I could see the kitchen area quite clearly through the cook’s mind, and I could channel Mari’s ability.

Crouching, I shifted to the near side of the counter and reached up to drop the powder into the mug the cook had waiting near the coffee maker. Given the very small amount of powder and the reading glasses on the counter, I was positive she wouldn’t notice when she filled the cup. Seconds later, I was back with Mari. Let’s move, I said to her before severing our mental connection.

We continued down the hallway and cut through another sitting room that was near the security room. There, we waited in the dark by the door. Within minutes, we heard the flip-flop of the cook’s house slippers as she moved down the hallway with her tray. I opened my senses and went along for the ride.

She knocked on the security room door. “Hey, Walker, it’s me, Melissa. I’ve brought you some decent coffee instead of that black slop you guys brew in there.”

The door was opened by a man who couldn’t be older than mid-twenties. “Hey, thanks. I really appreciate it.” He took a sip of the coffee, followed by a longer gulp. “Wow, this is amazing!”

“You’re welcome. I know it’s no fun working the night shift.”

He laughed, pushing back blond hair that was, in Melissa’s opinion, too long. “This job’s actually ideal. I’ve gotten a ton of studying done in the month I’ve been here. If I finish my degree, I’m hoping Desoto will move me up. I’d like to work at his factory in security management.”

“Which factory?”

“I’m not picky.”

“You’ll do it. He’s good to work for. He rewards loyalty, and to take the night shift like this, you’ve definitely shown that.”

Lovely to know they liked their boss. I felt a twinge of uncertainty. Maybe the information on the thumb drive was wrong about Desoto. After all, his business was to provide weapons to the US government. He should be one of the good guys. Yet the electronic shield around the house screamed that he was in bed with the Emporium or someone as equally dangerous. Anyone who worked for the Emporium was our enemy and an enemy of all mortals.

For all the information I was getting from Melissa’s thoughts, I saw nothing from the security guard. Walker, I reminded myself. He might not be old enough to have Changed, but someone had taught him to close his mind. I needed to get inside his brain to see exactly what he knew. Was he an Emporium agent? If so, did Desoto know he had an agent inside his house? It made sense for the Emporium to keep an eye on him if he had dealings with them, but Desoto might not be aware that all his movements were being watched every bit as carefully as he watched anyone who might be approaching his house.

I pushed against the wall surrounding the guard’s mind. It was gray like stone but was already crumbling under my touch, and I wasn’t exerting much pressure. It’s the drug, I thought.

Thankfully, Walker bid goodnight to the cook and went back to his chair behind the monitor. His thought stream was slowing. I caught images of his mother, a Styrofoam cup from his favorite coffee house, and a girl he’d gone out with the week before. Nothing about the Emporium or the information we’d come for.

He set down his coffee mug and blinked as the monitors blurred. Then he was out, the drug taking effect so fast his mind didn’t even have time to register that he was tired. All at once, I was in the lake of his unconsciousness, dodging memory bubbles. More of his mother and of a woman with long blond hair. A computer in a cubical, newspaper clippings. So much information. If he worked for the Emporium, I wasn’t seeing any sign of it. Not that it really mattered. Our job was to get the information, not waste time determining his loyalty.

“Well?” Mari whispered.

I swam up out of the lake and left his mind. “He’s out.”

The cook had long vanished back the way she’d come, so we crept into the hall and opened the door. It wasn’t locked, and from the thoughts in Melissa’s mind when she’d given the guard the coffee, locking it wasn’t customary. Her knock had been for the sake of politeness.

“Watch the door,” I told Mari as I sprinted to the computer the guard had been working on and pushed the decoder into the USB port. Codes started running across the screen. “Hopefully, it only takes out the shield and whatever is blocking communication. If the whole place goes dark, Desoto’s going to know something’s up.”

Mari’s laugh was a small explosion in the stillness. “This is Stella we’re talking about. When has she ever been wrong about something to do with computers?”

She had a point, and I grinned under my hood. The thing was tight and uncomfortable, and even as I had the thought, Mari was pulling hers off and wiping beaded sweat from her forehead. Her long black hair was pinned tightly against her head, and the style made her brown eyes seem even larger in her heart-shaped face. Though she was less than a fourth Japanese and looked more American than anything, she still resembled Stella, who was her fifth great-aunt. Mari had been a simple accountant before her Change, but now she added columns of numbers with barely a glance, folded space to teleport—or shift as we called it—and always knew exactly what time it was. She was a bit impulsive these days, and I liked her more for it. She’d come a long way from the catatonic state she’d fallen into after her husband’s betrayal and subsequent murder by the Emporium.

Mari’s attention transferred to the unconscious Walker, whose messy hair reminded me of my brother Jace’s, except the guard’s hair was shorter and had a bit of red highlighting. “He’s good-looking, isn’t he?” Mari asked.

I fingered the textbook next to the keyboard: The Ethics of Journalism. “Not my type. Or yours.”

A frown creased Mari’s face. She brought out a small knife from somewhere and twirled it in her hand. “You think he likes knives?”

“Not like you do. Looks like more of a pacifist to me. A bookworm.”

“Well, he’s cute anyway.” Mari brought the hand holding the knife near her cheek and delicately scratched her cheek with her finger. “Speaking of men, did you and Stella work out that nanite thing? You’ve only got two weeks left before the big day.”

My stomach both jumped and twisted at her words. Two weeks. Right. Not a lot of time. Before I could decide if I would answer Mari, Stella’s voice sounded in my ear. “I’m in. Accessing the database now. Looks like I won’t need you to enter anything from his keyboard. The decoder is enough. I still need it plugged in, though, so leave it and get going. I’ll have the codes for you before you get to his office.”

We left the security room, turned a corner, and continued down a hallway until we arrived at the office. As predicted, there was a lock, and Mari drew out her tools. She’d taken to picking locks almost as well as knife work.

By the time Mari had the door open, Stella was speaking into my ear with the information she’d found in Desoto’s computer system. “The combination is forty-two, eighty-nine, fifty-eight, A, Q, R.”

Inside the spacious office, I dodged a marble statue and hurried to the bookshelf. There, I flipped a hidden lever detailed in the house builder’s plans that Stella had hacked days ago from his computer. The bookshelf swung open, revealing a panel on a door. “Repeat the code,” I said to Stella.

“Here, let me.” Mari moved past me. Of course, she’d remember the sequence. “This is so James Bond,” Mari exulted as the door swung open.

Two easy chairs with a small table between them and a fancy wooden filing cabinet were the only furnishings in the tight space. I hurried to the cabinet and began searching for the file on Iran. I almost hoped it wouldn’t be there, that our intel was wrong. Because if we were right, an unspeakable evil was about to be leashed upon the world.

The file was there. Mari helped me spread out the pages, which I carefully photographed and sent to Stella, who scanned them for readability. She directed a retake of only one page. Mari and I were both quiet as we returned the file to the cabinet and made our way from the room, the flush of success having turned into a realization that our information was correct. Desoto really was planning to supply Iran with plutonium and help start a war.

“I’m erasing the record of the entry into the room,” Stella told us. “Now get my decoder and get out of there.”

“Be careful.” Ritter’s voice this time. “One of the patrol guys just went back into the house.”

We hadn’t heard any beeps from the alarm being deactivated by someone entering the house, but that wasn’t unusual considering how large the place was. I linked to Mari’s mind, and we shifted back to the sitting room near the security office.

A man with dark hair came down the hall. Not just any man, I saw, as he strode past the opening to the darkened sitting room, but an Unbounded. So Desoto did have Emporium agents working right here at his estate, and the Unbounded likely worked directly for the Emporium, whatever Mr. Desoto believed.

The man opened the door to the security room without knocking and didn’t close it behind him. “Walker?” we heard, followed by a slap. “Hey, wake up! Those sheep can wait for counting another time. Good thing I needed coffee, or Desoto might have found you sleeping on the job. What were you thinking?”

“I don’t know,” came the groggy response. “I wasn’t even tired when I got here.” His mind shield wasn’t yet in place, and I jumped inside to observe from his eyes.

“Here, I’ll get you some more coffee.”

“Wait, that’s the good—”

Too late. The patrol guard poured the remains of the first cup of coffee into the drain of the narrow sink that was in the corner of the room, his quick, agile movements signaling his ability in combat. Even so, I was debating the wisdom of shifting in and out for Stella’s device when Walker said, “Hmm, what’s this? I don’t remember that being here before.”

“What’s what?” the Unbounded turned toward him, holding a stained coffee pot from the brewer on the narrow counter.

“Oh, nothing. I think I’m still half asleep.” Giving the patrol guard a sluggish grin, Walker slipped the device into his pants pocket.

Why had he done that? I was pretty sure I could make him take it out again, though controlling people wasn’t easy, but I didn’t want the decoder to be discovered by the Unbounded patrol guard any more than Walker seemed to want him to notice it, so I let it stay.

“You okay now?” asked the guard, setting a new mug of coffee in front of Walker.

“Yeah. Thanks for the coffee and for waking me. You saved my butt.”

“Just don’t let it happen again.”

“I’ll triple up on my caffeine. No worries.”

I was about to ask Ritter and Stella if they wanted us to wait for the Unbounded to leave so we could distract Walker and grab the device when Ritter’s voice came through our earbuds. “Scratch meeting us at the car. We’ve got company out here. We’ll need your help.”